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We are Here and We Will Not be Denied: An Interview with Poet Omar Sakr

[Front cover of These Wild Houses. Image via Cordite Books Australia.] [Front cover of These Wild Houses. Image via Cordite Books Australia.]

In January 2017, Omar J. Sakr released his debut book, a collection of poems entitled These Wild Houses. The following interview touches upon themes of intersectionality, identity, and representation, particularly relating to Omar’s background growing up as a queer Muslim Arab Australian.


Camille Reynolds: I would like to begin by asking about your creative process. What did you set out to create at the inception of this book? How did you go about putting your story down on paper and dealing with the vulnerabilities that come with that, especially knowing that you are forging a new path in Australian poetry through discussing the intersections of your queer/Arab/poor identity?

Omar Sakr: I have never had any difficulties being vulnerable on a page. It is the greatest freedom imaginable, the absence of other people, just you and language itself. Put me in a room full of those I love more than life, however, and watch me choke on every innocuous word. I do not think about poetry, Australian or otherwise, or the intersections of identity when I am writing; it does not factor into it. In fact, I try not to think at all, to operate only on feeling and instinct.

CR: Structurally, These Wild Houses is separated into five distinct sections: Ahlan/The Living and Singing Rooms/The In-Between Palace/The Laundry/The Wide Open. In the introduction to your book, Judith Beveridge discusses how you root your poetry in the human body, or “the primary house” as she also calls it. Can you elaborate on this metaphor you build between house and body and how the structure of the book reflects this link?

OS: I am not really interested in analysing the structure, to be honest. I would rather put it out there and simply let it be, let others make of it what they will. I can talk about the drive behind the metaphor, though: I remember the housing commission flats my grandmother lived in, the squat uniform brick towers, and how inside each of them the whole world lived. Open any door, and you are suddenly in a different country with different people, different foods, different smells. I felt like that, too, within myself—even when I was with my cousins, my siblings, my mother, I was still a world away from them.

CR: I would like to continue by asking a series of questions about the poem entitled ghosting the ghetto. It stands out in the book for a number of reasons, most overtly because the page orientation is in contrast to the rest of the poems, displayed landscape rather than portrait, and because you address the poem to a specific person, Steven. Why the marked contrast?  

OS: That was mostly just a product of page margins. I was not willing to compromise on the line length, I wanted to push breath to the limit with it, to give the sense of a heedless unfurling, a rush that is still nonetheless controlled. More than that, I did not want the stanzas to be any larger, which shorter lines would have resulted in. It is already a long, dense poem and I was not as trusting as I could have been, as to whether readers would dive into a poem that appears intimidating, so I was adamant it remain the way I wrote it, which meant it had to be in landscape. I do love that the poem most tied to the idea of country is itself a landscape, however. I love, too, that the formatting ensures every reader will have to stop and re-orient themselves before taking it on. It is a small microcosm of what it feels like to be the child of migrants, constantly re-orienting in spaces that are not designed to accept you.

CR: Ghosting the ghetto also provides an intimate look at how the relationship with your Arab and Muslim identity has transformed over the years, particularly through the lens of family. Can you speak more to how you navigate/(d) and construct/(ed) your Arab and Muslim identity while living in the diaspora as a son of Lebanese and Turkish immigrants?

OS: I grew up with my Lebanese (Muslim) family. I did not know anything about my father except that he was Turkish, and I did not meet him or his family until I was around sixteen, which is to say, past my formative years. I did not really identify as anything other than Lebanese or Muslim for a long time. Arab was typically thrown at me as insult—at least it was always said as if it was a filthy word. Especially after 9/11. (I was eleven, then). I noticed it was used as a catch-all slur against anyone who looked vaguely brown or Middle Eastern, and it really started to frustrate me that despite being all of us being labelled as one, however incorrectly, there was still such in-fighting and intra-community racism. I wanted to say, look, you donkeys, look, there is an obvious truth beneath this racism. We may not be one people, but maybe we could be. We could be. So, in an effort to reclaim the word, I began to go by Arab (-Australian).

At least, I think that is why I started. There is more to it, however. More than I can say here. It resonates to my core and the closest I can come to approximating why is this: Arab is ancient, is multi-national. In its many multitudes of meaning, from outside groups and from Middle Eastern people alike, I find a vast freedom. I recognise this is not true for some, that I came to it from a naïve place, that any identifier can be and has been used as a club to beat others with, a border to act as exclusionary force, but I cannot do anything about that. I can only live as my best complex self; open, inclusive, fighting against tyranny everywhere, standing in solidarity with the oppressed, and hope to showcase a different way of being.

CR: You write in ghosting the ghetto,

“In the long months away from that imagined country,/I heard of an older cousin, a name hushed by others, a man in love with men, and in his absence/I saw my future: who knew you could ghost the living?/Who knew you could bury the ghetto in forgetting?”

I believe those last two lines express a sentiment that resonates with many who are queer and Arab and from a “broke and broken family,” as you state. Can you talk about what the idea of representation means to you? About what happens when you grow up not seeing yourself anywhere? How do we work towards building representation for future generations of queer Arabs and all their intersectional identities?   

OS: Representation is hugely important. Living in a society that does not value your input while actively misrepresenting your culture leads to feeling both invisible and maligned, and when you’re already disenfranchised or on the margins, this can really warp your sense of self-worth. It also reinforces existing biases: it is already twice as difficult for people with Arabic names to get jobs, for example. Part of my desire to write came from wanting to speak back against the negative narratives surrounding Arabs/Muslims. It also came from feeling silenced within my family, and needing to put forward a fullness of myself I could not see anywhere in society.

It has been difficult to stand at this intersection, being attacked from both sides, but the benefit is clear: it is worth it every time I hear a queer Arab say, your book meant so much to me. When they come up to me after a reading with a wondering look in their eye, like: how can this be, like: where have you been, like: thank God I am not alone. I am here for them. I am here for you. It is difficult, however. Many queer Arabs are dependent on family, are afraid of violence if they come out, or are afraid that their very difference, their struggle will be used against their own community by a racist media. The truth is: every community has issues with homophobia, and ours is no different. In Australia, we still do not have marriage equality and the ugliness of the public “debate” has shown how deeply anti-queerness runs in mainstream culture.

It is more important now than ever for those of us who are able, like me, to stand up and say, we are here and we will not be denied. To show others they are not alone, that they can reach out, that there is a place in literature for them, in music and art, and where possible, to support each other as we begin to find our voices.

CR: Where do you situate yourself within the literary genealogy? What poets or authors have you drawn inspiration or influence from over the years? 

OS: I think it is not unreasonable to say I have been influenced in some way, conscious and unconscious, by everything I have read, everything I have seen, and everything I have dreamed or feared. I could point out a few poets like Kazim Ali, like Najwan Darwish, and Philip Levine, for example, but for every name I give there would be an ocean of letters between them that go unsaid. Which is to say it seems foolish, because like any genealogy, if you go back far enough, you would be surprised to see who had a hand in making you. It is probably no one you would have thought of and they were probably less important than you imagined.

CR: Lastly, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any forthcoming publications in the works?

OS: I am at the finishing stages of my second poetry collection, currently titled, AN INHERITANCE, and I am working on a novel, A BOY unWOVEN.

[These Wild Houses is available to purchase through Cordite Books and Amazon. Additionally, a select few of Sakr's poems have been translated into Arabic by Najwan Darwish, a Palestinian poet, and published online through Al Araby UK.]

Syrian Population Regression

Population: ~ 17,583,863 (2017 est.)

2011:  5,800+ (killed)

2012:  60,000+ (killed) and 500,000+ (external refugees), 3+ million (internally displaced)

2013:  100,000+ (killed), 2,000,000+ (external refugees), and 8 million+ (internally displaced)

2014: 200,000+ (killed), 3.5+ million (external refugees), 7.6+ million (internally displaced)

2015: 250,000+ (killed), 4.4 million (external refugees), 6.6+ million (internally displaced)

2016: 400,000+ (killed), 4.9+ million (external refugees), 6.3+ million (internally displaced)

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Population: 17,185,170 (July 2016 est.)
GDP: $24.6 billion (2014 est.); $50.28 billion purchasing power parity (2015 est.)
Unemployment: 50% (2016 est.); Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): total: 35.8% (male: 26.6%; female: 71.1% [2011 est.])
Internet Users: 5.116 million - 30%/pop. (July 2015 est.)
Exchange Rate: ~ 497.8 Syrian pounds per US dollar (2016 est.)
GDP Growth Rate: -9.9% (2015 est.)
Military Expenditures: 5.9% of GDP (World Rank: 10) (2011 est.)
Health Expenditures: 2.9% of GDP (World Rank: 180) (2011 est.)
Population Growth Rate: 1.56% (2016 est.)
Age Structure: 0-14 years: 31.95% (male 2,815,140/female 2,675,166); 15-24 years: 19.65% (male 1,711,847/female 1,664,814); 25-54 years: 39.03% (male 3,342,264/female 3,364,406); 55-64 years: 5.26% (male 447,205/female 457,525); 65 years and over: 4.11% (male 318,691/female 388,112) (2016 est.)
Literacy: 86.4% (male: 91.7%; female: 81% [2015 est.])
Religious Demographics: Sunni Muslim 74%; other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%; Christian (various denominations) 10%
Ethnic Demographics: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%